One of the more intriguing watches debuted by an independent watchmaker in the year to date is the Bexei Dignitas Pure “Project XX”, a collaboration between Hungarian watchmaker Aaron Becsei and American knife maker Todd Rexford. Conceived at the behest of a Thai collector living in Japan, the Project XX is based on Bexei’s time-only model but its case, dial, and movement plates in zirconium, a resilient metal with properties similar to titanium.
Mr Becsei is already known for his high-quality movements and regular readers will remember the Vox Vinum grande sonnerie wristwatch he completed in 2019. His partner in his project is a leading artisanal knife maker whose one-off knives regularly sell for more than a Rolex Submariner, Todd Rexford.
An artisan who works with metal in ways similar to a watchmaker, Mr Rexford uses the many of same tools found in a watchmaker’s workshop, like lathes, jig borers, and drills; he even makes his own screws. And he clearly works to the same tolerances since he produced the movement bridges for the Project XX.
A defining element of the Project XX are its “hot hammered” zirconium components, namely the dial and movement bridges. It’s the signature material of Mr Rexford’s that he often uses for the handles of his knives.
The zirconium dial and movement parts were produced and then hot hammered by Mr Rexford, resulting in a textured finish that sharply contrasts with the lustrous movement decoration applied by Mr Bexei.
Fulfilling its owner’s vision of something modern, clean, and high quality, the Project XX is drastically different from the usual Bexei watch in both style and materials, but still boasts the exemplary movement decoration that is typical of the brand.
Mr Becsei’ aesthetic is usually gothic, defined by dark colours, ornate engraving, and Louis XIV hands. The look is unique and has its own idiosyncratic appeal. But his trademark style does not conform to the popular styles in watch collecting today, namely gentlemen’s wristwatches of the first half of the 20th century or Abraham-Louis Breguet. Consequently, the Project XX is a logical addition to his offerings – it’s instantly recognisable as a Bexei thanks to the case shape and details, yet a distinct departure from its usual style.
Minimalist compared to Mr Becsei’s past designs, the dial of the Project XX has an Art Deco flavour. Though it appears simple at a distance, the quality of finishing is evident in the details up close.
The quality can be seen in all elements of the dial, ranging from the hands to the chapter ring to the applied Bexei emblem.
And of course the remarkably textured zirconium dial is impressive up close – the texture is so fine it seems to be a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Over on the back, the movement is once again instantly recognisable as Bexei. Mechanically the calibre is identical to that in the standard Dignitas, although modifications had to be made to the bridges to accommodate the material and hammering.
Like the dial, the movement appears simple at a distance due to its mostly dark colours that result from the oxidised zirconium. But zoom in and the movement finishing becomes apparent.
Unlike Bexei’s standard movements that are entirely traditional in decoration, this presents a gorgeous yet jarring contrast between the hot-hammered bridges and the polished or grained surfaces. In fact, the traditional decorative techniques like anglage and black polishing are made even more prominent because of the hammered finish, which has its own beauty that looks perfectly at home in a watch movement, despite being an entirely new concept.
In summary, the Project XX is very much a Bexei, one that is executed differently but no less well than its other timepieces.
(NB: The watch pictured is the prototype so it is not entirely clean within the case.)
The origins of the collaboration
The collaboration began with a Thai watch collector who prefers only to be known by his nickname Ake. Now residing in Japan, Ake is a longtime fan of independent watchmaking and owns watches by F.P. Journe amongst others. But the watch he desired did not yet exist.
Ake envisioned a watch that was “high quality and casual”, while also having a relatively modern aesthetic and a “very nice movement finish”. But there was nothing on the market that fit the bill. The F.P. Journe Chronometre Bleu, for instance, is casual but the movement decoration is not artisanal. On the other hand, he found watches with a high level of movement finish too formal in terms of design.
“What led me to Bexei was Aaron’s case design,” explains Ake, “I saw a lot of potential in the Dignitas case; it could have that ‘casual cool rawness’, but with very high quality movement finishing – exactly what I was looking for.”
As it happens, Ake also collects folding knives and Japanese swords, which he how he got acquainted with knife maker Todd Rexford around 2015. Mr Rexford’s knives are in such high demand that even after badass collaboration got well underway, Ake was not yet the owner of a Rexford knife, which are exceedingly difficult to obtain due to minimal production and high demand. The knife pictured with the watch only came into Ake’s possession after he won it at an auction in 2021 (knife makers often sell their top-of-the-line creations at auction that they conduct themselves).
“Todd was already hot [in 2015] and his order book was closed, so I was not yet a customer of his,” says Ake, “But he was willing to answer my questions on how he get things done and his perspective on knife making in general. So he was my first choice, and lucky I did not need a second choice!”
So Ake pitched the idea to Mr Rexford, writing: ‘I think this will be plain BAD ASS and that’s all I care about lol.’ And Mr Rexford responded: ‘Ake, Bad Ass is ok by me. Haha.’
According to Ake, designing the watch was a straightforward process. “I told Aaron I want something more casual and sporty and he created a design that both myself and Todd were happy with it from the first rendering,” says Ake, “We only changed the design of the hands, but the rest was all great from the original rendering.”
“I wanted to share the awesomeness of the two craftsmen and the hard work that they put into the project that we now enjoy,” says Ake, “I figured the hammered dial looks good enough that someone who will eventually copy the idea, but I know both Todd and Aaron can do better than just the dial. So I challenged them to raise the bar and that is how we got the hammered movement!”
The challenge of the Project XX lay in fabricating the zirconium components for the watch, which was a first for Mr Becsei and probably a first in watchmaking as a whole.
Contemporary and all “zirc”
A metal with properties similar to titanium, zirconium is widely used in custom knives. Like titanium, zirconium is light, though it is softer, leaving the untreated metal vulnerable to scratches. For that reason, zirconium is typically heat treated to create a protective oxide layer on its surface. A dark grey that’s almost black, the oxide layer is harder than the metal below, which results in a relatively scratch-resistant finish.
“Hot hammered” zirconium is a speciality of Mr Rexford, who regularly uses the material for the handles of his knives. The technique is actually a combination of forging and hammering – heating the zirconium to below melting point to soften it and then rapidly striking it to create the texture finish while also increasing the density of the metal.
“Without heat the the metal will not move much,” says Mr Rexford, “The parts are heated to varying levels of heat, but generally forging does not start until 1,000°F .”
He adds, “Most of the forging takes place around 1,500°F but sometimes 2,000°F degrees will be needed.”
Mr Rexford has honed his hammering technique over the years and now achieves an incredibly nuanced finish that is best described as a slightly crystalline, crinkly foil surface. But despite the fineness of the hammer finish, it is solid metal.
But the Project XX is not just hot-hammered zirconium – the case is made of brushed, oxidised zirconium, explaining its dark grey appearance. Specifically, the case is Zr 702, an alloy that’s over 99% zirconium and exceptionally resistant to corrosion. In fact, it was developed for “environments where even the best stainless steels are not sufficiently corrosion resistant” according to its manufacturer.
While the material is different, the case design and size is identical to that of the standard Dignitas. The shape is reminiscent of form watches of the 1930s, but accented with details that give it an elegant feel and interesting geometry. The lugs flare outwards, giving them concave sides. This is echoed by the concave flanks of the bezel, which emphasise the dial. And the concavity is in turn mirrored on the case that has flared sides.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of its case is the subtle contrast in finishing. The top surfaces are mostly frosted, while the concave and convex sides are vertically brushed. The difference in finishing is barely obvious, but each finish reflects the light in a slightly different manner.
The case of the Project XX is identical to that of the standard Dignitas, which makes it a sizeable watch. It measures 37.5 mm in diameter, but 42 mm long and 14 mm high. But due to the dark case finish and dial colour, it appears smaller than the average Bexei.
And the fact that zirconium is a third as dense as gold means the Project XX is substantially lighter than the typical Bexei. In that way, it feels like the casual watch envisioned by Ake, especially when paired with the denim strap that comes as standard.
Details and details
While the zirconium case is all about clean lines and subtle finishing, the dial has a pronounced texture framed by a chapter ring with hour markers. Despite being simple in form, the chapter rings for the hours and seconds are both finely detailed. Both have raised borders and indices that are brushed, while the recessed areas are frosted.
The hands are even more impressive. In fact, Mr Bexei says they are amongst the most complex he has ever made.
For one, all three hands are made of titanium. They continue the relief and recessed design of the chapter rings with similar finishing on the top, but are further finished with polished, bevelled edges that were anodised to create a contrasting outline that accentuates the angular, sci-fi shape.
The contrasting colours in the hands results from a tedious process of first anodising the entire hand before removing the colour from the top surface, which then has to be finished with straight graining – all the while ensuring that the blue anodisation is preserved on the bevelling.
Even the anodisation process was a challenge. Although the hands were made by Mr Bexei, Mr Rexford provided much of the technical input for the anodisation thanks to the widespread use of the process in knife making. According to Mr Rexford, the pale blue anodised finish is an especially difficult colour to achieve. A specific titanium alloy was required to obtain this colour consistently, which requires a voltage of 84 volts during the anodisation process.
And of course there’s the zirconium dial, which was made by Todd Rexford according to technical plans drawn up by Mr Bexei.
Amorphous in appearance, the texture of the dial is extraordinary in its fineness, despite the fact the zirconium is a fairly hard metal with a hardness comparable to stainless steel. The texture shows up incredible detail that merely shrinks in scale as the magnification increases. Yet the texture was accomplished entirely by hand.
Mr Rexford’s skill is most evident in the movement, which has all its bridges in zirconium. Despite being neither a watchmaker nor components maker, he managed to produced the bridges to Mr Becsei’s specs, apply the hot-hammered finish, and still have bridges that were precise enough for a watch movement.
Though the movement retains the same overall form as the standard Dignitas movement, the bridges had to be made wider to accommodate the hammered finish. As a result, the slender finger bridges for the going train wheels were merged into the barrel bridge such that the movement has two bridges instead of the four found in the standard version. Although that would be a major revamp in any other movement, the calibre inside the Project XX is easily identifiable as the Dignitas movement, reflecting its strong aesthetic as well as characteristic decoration.
Unlike Bexei’s standard movements, the Project XX calibre is almost entirely in black and silver, save for the rubies. This monochromatic appearance paradoxically serves to bring out the various finishing techniques even more. The range of textures from hammered to mirrored are easily admired even without high magnification.
As on the dial, the hot-hammered zirconium has a texture that is amazing in its fineness, but the stark contrast with the mirror-polished bevels leaves the hammered finish even more conspicuous.
Even though the zirconium bridges are finished as well as the German silver bridges found in Bexei’s standard watches, the process was far, far more tedious. “Polishing Zirconium is a nightmare – it behaves differently compared to any other material I dealt with before and I had to experiment a lot and test different polishing materials and methods [to get the same result],” says Mr Bexei.
“The problem with zirconium is that during the polishing process, scratches don’t disappear but get deeper and deeper,” explains Mr Bexei, “And because of this it was very difficult to keep the sharp edges.”
He adds, “Even after I found the best combination of the abrasive paste and carrier, the processing time was still 10 times longer compared to a German silver bridge.”
All that experimentation paid off – the anglage on the zirconium bridges looks as good as that on Bexei’s standard movements. This achievement once again proves Mr Becsei’s prowess in hand finishing.
Unsurprisingly the zirconium bridges are not the only impressive element of the movement decoration – everything has been executed to an extremely high level. The spokes of the wheels are bevelled and mirror polished, while the teeth of the crown and barrel ratchet wheels are chamfered and mirror polished. Even the barely-visible pallet fork bridge is radially grained on top and sports perfect anglage along its edges.
The movement is so peerless in execution that I can only find one shortcoming that isn’t even really a shortcoming in terms of finishing. That’s the fact that the engraving is done by machine rather than by hand. But considering the entirety of the movement, that is practically a non-issue and I feel almost unreasonable mentioning it.
The Project XX is a study in contrasts: the traditional decoration against the hammered finish, the clean, modern dial against the Art Deco case, and of course the skills of a watchmaker and that of knife maker. But it is not so much contrast after all because everything comes together seamlessly, resulting in a timepiece that is both beautiful and beautifully executed.
Key Facts and Price
Bexei Dignitas Pure “Project XX”
Size: 37.5 mm by 42 mm
Height: 14 mm
Water resistance: 100 m
Dial: Hot-hammered zirconium
Movement: Dignitas Pure with hot-hammered zirconium bridges
Functions: Hours, minutes, and seconds
Frequency: 21,600 beats per hour (3.5 Hz)
Winding: Manual wind
Power reserve: 40 hours
Strap: Denim with rubber backing
Limited edition: Initial production run of three watches, with subsequent production capped at two per year
Availability: Direct from Bexei
Price: €77,000 excluding taxes
For more, visit Bexei.hu.
Additional July 2, 2022: Included additional background on the hands anodisation and bridge finishing.Back to top.